HOUSTON — United Space Alliance, NASA’s prime contractor for space shuttle operations, is seeking funds through the agency’s Commercial Crew Development Round 2 competition to assess the business case for keeping the shuttle flying for another 12-14 missions beginning in 2013, following an early restart of external fuel tank and solid-rocket booster production.
Howard DeCastro, USA’s vice president and shuttle program manager, and other company officials offered a broad outline of a proposed commercial shuttle operations strategy during a forum, “U.S. Human Spaceflight: Continuity and Stability,” hosted by Rice University’s James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy in Houston, on Feb. 15. The shuttle fleet is slated to fly its final missions this year.
NASA’s CCDev program expects to announce a second round of development activity in March, backed by up to $200 million in contract awards based on an evaluation of competitive proposals. If a six-month CCDev2 funded study produced a supportable business case, commercial shuttle operations using Atlantis and Endeavour could begin in 2013 and unfold at a rate of two flights a year, DeCastro says.
The strategy would close the gap between NASA’s planned retirement of the shuttle fleet, following two and possibly three more flights this year, and the startup of commercial crew services by USA competitors. During Feb. 14 briefings on NASA’s proposed fiscal 2012 budget, agency officials estimated other U.S. commercial space services will not be ready to launch astronauts until 2014-16.
If USA’s study proposal is among the CCDev2 contract awards, the company could move soon to reopen production of shuttle external tanks by Lockheed Martin and solid rocket boosters by ATK. Future flight operations will be paced by the 18 months required to produce the first external tank, USA officials say.
“We need to understand the paradigm for working with NASA’s management,” DeCastro says of the study’s objectives. “Is it going to be 50 people, 500 people? That drives cost. We need to understand in some detail what facilities we would have to pay for. Would we have to pay for the full year, or lease them only when we need them?”
USA, which is a Lockheed Martin/Boeing joint venture, is looking at the use of Kennedy Space Center hangars, crawler-transporters and launch pads as well as Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center.
“If it’s not funded, then I think we close the doors,” DeCastro says of the study.